In the end, the IT department proved to be more powerful than the COO. It was almost Orwellian, in the sense that to protect the data, they needed to control it. Don’t get me wrong – the IT department has a tough job, managing the existing systems at Accipiter and layering on hundreds of new requests. They were actually quite pleased to learn of the desire for an innovation community, and quite unhappy when they realized that Bill and Susan had their eye on hosted software. The biggest problem in their minds: data privacy and security.
“Our policies, which we built to satisfy the users that no Accipiter data would be put at risk, require any sensitive data, or customer specific data, or data with high intellectual property must be behind our firewall” said Frank Smithson, the Accipiter CIO. It wasn’t negotiable from their perspective. Either find a package we could install behind the firewall or IT would be happy to build it in SharePoint or some other technology.
Bill left the room, trailing a thin wisp of steam emanating from his nicely tailored collar. The IT guys glanced at me, shrugged as if to say “we don’t make the rules, we just enforce them” and left quietly. Susan returned a few minutes later.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen Bill so angry. Lately, it seems any time we need a new system or software solution, the IT guys drag their feet. Usually, we can get them to do something we need. Now that we have a directive from the CEO to create an innovation community, they’ve thrown down the gauntlet.” Susan, who wasn’t used to the roller coaster ride of an innovation project, was getting tired of the ups and downs, the curves and straightaways. I stood like an old seahand on a pitching deck, since I’d been on this particular ride more times than I could count.
“Look, this is fairly typical in this situation. The IT guys are merely enforcing a policy that some other executives have asked for. You can argue it all day, or we can investigate some software applications that your team can purchase and install, or you can start designing a new application internally. It’s best at this point to consider your next best alternatives. A hosted solution seems out of the question. That leaves us with an installed solution or having IT attempt to build something.”
She nodded. “Let’s start a review of applications we can license and install. I don’t want to have to wait for the design and development internally.”
I knew of a few firms that provided software that would probably meet Accipiter’s needs, and went about the task of contacting them and setting up demonstrations. This time, we were careful to invite the appropriate IT resources to the meetings, so any issues with architecture or support were addressed early on. Bill continued on a separate path to talk with the CEO and CIO, to see if Accipiter could bend the security rules in this instance. He was rightly convinced that a hosted application could be available much more quickly, and would probably have better support than an internal application. No such luck.
While the Accipiter executives dueled it out over the software, Susan and I got down to brass tacks on the purpose, goals and management of the community.
“Susan, we need to document your goals and make sure we map those goals for the community to the software we select. Is it your goal to have an ‘open’ community, where anyone can submit ideas about an Accipiter product, or do you want to invite a specific set of customers or partners to submit ideas?”
“What’s the major difference?”
“There are several. Most important is intellectual property. In a community that is by invitation, you can invite business partners and key customers and strike agreements that define the ownership of intellectual property, and perhaps share more of your strategy. In an open community, the ideas will have less protection, since they are visible to anyone who signs up. You will also have to work harder to validate the ideas submitted in an open community, because an average Joe won’t know, and won’t care, if that idea or capability belongs to another firm.”
“Will we get more ideas from an open community?”
“Yes, but that’s a two edged sword. More ideas, most certainly, and most likely the ideas will represent a very broad spectrum of interest and opinion from your customer base. An invitation community can be more focused, so you have deeper ideas but less breadth. An open community can become very similar to an open suggestion box.”
She seemed to shudder slightly at that remark. All good innovation programs are just one or two steps away from the suggestion box, that seemingly innocent place where ideas go to die.
“Then another concern with an open community would be the same as our suggestion box – no clear statement of needs or goals, and anyone can submit any idea?”
“Yep. If you aren’t careful, an open community can become a dumping ground for anyone with a problem, issue, idea or just a favorite topic. The breadth and diversity of ideas is interesting, but often many of them just won’t be valuable.”
“OK, what’s the alternative?
“You can invite people or partners to a community, or you could establish clear, specific statements or goals for the community. In some smaller communities, we’ve even gone so far as to spell out the problem we are trying to solve or the opportunity we believe exists. The problem with that approach is that now you may be tipping your hand on your strategic direction and strategy. There are some fine lines to walk.”
“I think our first goal is simply to start demonstrating that we are listening to our customers, and taking on their ideas. Let’s start with the simplest model and then refine it over time.”
“Fine, as long as you understand the tradeoffs. You also understand, I hope, that this community can’t run itself. Accipiter will need to staff it with people who read and review the ideas, comment on the ideas, contact some of the submitters and evaluate and select ideas. We’ll need to identify a team of people to interact with your community on a consistent basis. This is about engagement, after all, and not a one way street.”
“Let’s get to work outlining the community, the team we’ll need to support the community and the process once ideas are selected. I’ll talk with Bill to see if he is making any headway on the hosted solution, and if not, we can start looking at the licensed software options.”
Jeffrey Phillips is VP Marketing and a lead consultant for OVO Innovation. Jeffrey has led innovation projects for Fortune 5000 firms, academic institutions and not-for=profits based on OVO Innovation’s Innovate on Purpose™ methodology. The Innovate on Purpose methodology encourages organizations to consider innovation as a sustainable, repeatable business process, rather than a discrete project.
Jeffrey is the author of “Make Us More Innovative,” a book that encompasses much of the OVO Innovation methodology, and blogs about innovation at Innovate On Purpose. He is a sought after speaker and has presented to corporations, innovation oriented conferences, and at a number of universities. In 2010 he chaired the Innovate North Carolina conference and was a keynote speaker at Queen’s University, University of the Pacific, UNC and several other colleges and conferences. Jeffrey has an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin and an undergraduate degree in engineering from the University of Virginia.